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Buruka Tau – keyboard maestro & PNG patriot

Buruka Tau - ambassador
Buruka Tau - PNG's ambassador of culture and the arts

STEVEN TAU
| My Land, My Country

PORT MORESBY - My dad, Buruka Tau, who died in early September, was a larger than life character and as spontaneous in nature as jazz.

As a kid, I just saw him as dad, a musician. One day, he would be with us doing everyday things and the next he was somewhere in the world being a rock star.

Growing up, my siblings and I understood what dad was, but not actually what he did. We would hear dad’s story from people around us talking about his achievements.

So we were always with mum and she was as strong as an ox – a woman of great faith who kept the balance at home while dad followed his creative pursuits, back then for bread and butter or tinfish and rice.

Buruka Tau (middle back) and Ben Hakalitz (far right) with Yothu Yindi and frontman  Mandawuy Yunupingu
Buruka Tau (middle back) with Yothu Yindi. Ben Hakalitz (far right)  and frontman Mandawuy Yunupingu (middle bottom)

Dad would be on a four-month world tour with Yothu Yindi and then come back home for a week or so and then back on the road again.

My siblings and I got excited on his return, because we knew he would bring us goodies, chocolates and more chocolates.

We saw a glimpse of his life on the road when our family moved to Darwin during the recording of a Yothu Yindi album.

My younger brother was born there and I met dad’s band mates.

The older I got, the more I got to know my dad and who he was.

I guess as a child I didn’t really understood what he did or how influential he was as a musician.

All I knew was that he was the best pianist in the country.

The older we got, dad’s touring became less frequent, especially after he got sick in 1998. I can’t recall the name of the condition. But according to doctors he had little chance of surviving.

While mum was with dad in Brisbane for his treatment, we were in Port Moresby under the care of my wonderful aunties and uncles. Life was hard, but I knew my parents would find a way.

Dad beat the odds and beat his sickness but doctors had to cut off nerves in his face. They told him he wouldn’t be able to drive again.

When he returned home his face looked different because he didn’t have nerves on its left side.

But we were all happy to see both our parents again and to have dad back on his feet.

He couldn’t go on tour for a while and during that period our family was struggling.

Biknem PNG musik man  Buruka Tau wantaim wanpla band
Buruka Tau on keyboards in later years

Dad slowly recovered from the operation and, with his mind always on the move, wanted to push on.

Then out of the blue in 1999 came a job offer at the Ela Murray International School. Now my dad was a teacher and didn’t have to go on the road.

Later that year he proved doctors wrong and started driving again and he slowly began getting back into music. 

He became resident piano player at the Crown Plaza Hotel whilst still a full time teacher. He also returned to gigging, performing with his old mates, Jerry David, John Wong and Ben Hakalitz.

As music teacher at the international school, he had a great relationship with his students and my friends would say how awesome and fun he was.

Dad’s students were fascinated with his stories about the famous people he met or jammed with.

He was music teacher and later mentor to the Sheppard siblings, George, Amy and Emma. He connected them to his industry mates in Australia and The Sheppards went on to be big stars.

Dad was always proud of the success his students. He would say, ‘All I did was plant the seeds, they did the rest’.

In 2001 he was recognised for his services to music industry by the Australian government and awarded the Centenary Medal.

That time was quite special for dad and for me. The award ceremony was held at the school with Sir Paulius Matane in attendance. The Australian High Commissioner presented dad with the medal.

The school gave a lovely tribute to dad by asking students to say a little about him. It was then I realised that my dad wasn’t just a musician, he was an  ambassador for Papua New Guinea. He left a mark wherever he went.

Buruka Tau where he loved to beShortly after that, he was also recognised by the PNG Government and became Member of the Order of Logohu for his services as an educator and musician. The ceremony took place at Parliament House.

Dad used to say he was just a simple musician, but now he was recognised by two governments.

Even though we were his kids, dad never really taught us much in music outside his classes in school.

He was self-taught for the most part and I guess that’s what he expected from us.

I’d see dad teach other kids music and he’d remind me that they paid for his service and joke that “you’ll have to pay as well if you want lessons”.

As I got older I got the closer to dad and learned about his life before we arrived, especially his Sanguma days in the late 1970s and 1980s, the time when many people called him a legend.

I learnt that dad opened for Steel Pulse with Sanguma in 1981 in the USA. In the crowd was a young lad, Joaquin Quino McWhinney, who would go on to form the award winning reggae band, Big Mountain.

Joaquin came to PNG many years later and met dad at the Lamana Hotel, where he told my older brother and me how inspired he was by the legendary Sanguma.

Dad told many stories of his encounters with the stars but this was the first time I got a first-hand account of his work and how much he had achieved. He would often talk about his life on the road, walking the red carpet in Los Angeles and playing the Para Olympics with Yothu Yindi and meeting Muhammad Ali.

He told us about his life as a session musician in Hong Kong and London, back then he was a bassist. Or in his young days, running away from school so he could get a hold of any instrument and practice, practice, practice.

Our family didn’t really live the good life. Like many other creatives in PNG, my dad struggled to make ends meet.

Even with his legendary status he was a simple man who lived a simple existence. When we were old enough we become dad’s roadies, setting up gigs, getting paid and moving on.

He tried singing with us so we could gig around with him, but that wasn’t really our thing. However the youngest siblings, Natasha and Pauline, did become dad’s singers and gigging buddies.

To me, Dad was like an older brother, and a best friend.

You could talk about anything to him and he’d always have an input. His understanding of music was complex. He wasn’t only a musician, but a great teacher and mentor.

He had the ability to relate to anyone. He taught prisoners, drank with the outcasts of society in the settlements, talked to politicians, entrepreneurs, had great relationships with taxi drivers, so many people.

And dad really had nothing bad to say about others, even about those who treated him poorly.

He understood the struggle. He had developed a steely determination that allowed him to reach great heights.

He was a patriotic Papua New Guinean who had offers to live and work elsewhere but chose to stay here.

He was a legend to many but to us, he was dad – a person with the kindest heart and a wicked and wacky sense of humour (that I got from him).

Buruka Tau  third from left  with Sanguma
Buruka Tau third from left with Sanguma

I guess dad will be remembered as a pioneer and true patriot of our country.

What Sanguma did as a band was try to unify a country of a thousand tribes without alienating the rest of the world. They incorporated western and traditional instruments in their music and used it as a their medium.

In recent years, even with his declining health, he never let that stop him from being the creative genius and maestro he was. Above all, he was a father who would do anything for his kids and family.

Dad changed the narrative of how many people viewed our country through our music.

He was and will always be a legend. To me he is the real life super hero who took on the world with his God-given gifts.

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